Sunday, July 6, 2008

Jonathan Edwards on original sin

Well, I just sat down to re-read Jonathan Edwards’ defense of the doctrine of original sin. [Philosophical aside: Personally, I think the doctrine of original sin is philosophically confusing. I don’t quite understand it.]

His treatment is even more radical than I had remembered. His project is to answer objections about the alleged injustice of imputing Adam and Eve’s sin/guilt to their posterity. [Philosophical aside: I think this question is interesting regardless of whether one takes the Adam and Even story to be historical, allegorical, mytho-poetical, whatever. I could care less which of these one adopts.]

He does have some stuff in there that intimates something like a four-dimensionalism (though not strictly so), applied to the entire human species. Each alleged individual is, in a sense, a slice of the human species.

He writes:
“I think, it would go far towards directing us to the more clear and distinct conceiving and right stating of this affair, if we steadily bear this in mind; that God, in each step of his proceeding with Adam, in relation to the covenant or constitution established with him, looked on his posterity as being one with him. (The propriety of his looking upon them so, I shall speak to afterwards.) And though he dealt more immediately with Adam, yet it was as the head of the whole body, and the root of the whole tree; and in his proceedings with him, he dealt with all the branches, as if they had been then existing in their root. From which it will follow, that both guilt, or exposedness to punishment, and also depravity of heart, came upon Adam’s posterity just as they came upon him, as much as if he and they had all coexisted, like a tree with many branches; allowing only for the 16 difference necessarily resulting from the place Adam stood in, as head or root of the whole, and being first and most immediately dealt with, and most immediately acting and suffering. Otherwise, it is as if, in every step of proceeding, every alteration in the root had been attended, at the same instant, with the same steps and alterations throughout the whole tree, in each individual branch. I think, this will naturally follow on the supposition of there being a constituted oneness or identity of Adam and his posterity in this affair.”

He then deals with an immediate and obvious objection that this way of speaking of “oneness” or “identity” is completely inappropriate.

It’s the way he deals with this objection that is radical. Like the clever metaphysician he was, he argues that it’s not any stranger than any case of identity or sameness.

He begins with the standard Cartesian line on divine concurrence vis-Ă -vis endurance, namely, there isn’t any if we’re being strictly philosophical about it. Each moment is God’s (re)creating out of nothing the entire space-time reality. Each momentary slice is strictly causally unconnected to the previous and later moments.

He writes:
“It will certainly follow from these things, that God’s preserving created things in being is perfectly equivalent to a continued creation, or to his creating those things out of nothing at each moment of their existence.”

From there, he eventually goes after personal identity and the identity of substances, arguing that these paradigm cases of identity are actually what he calls “dependent” on the will of God. After all, at each given moment, my slices are related, at best, by a Humean relation of contiguity in space and time, but there is no authentic causal relation between them. [Philosophical aside: Note the question-begging phrase “authentic causal relation” in the previous sentence. Caveat lector!] Each is a kind of momentary substance that winks in and then immediately out of existence. (So here, Edwards would not qualify as a genuine four-dimensionalist. He would be more like a three-dimensionalist presentist who denies that anything endures.)

He writes:
“From these things it will clearly follow, that identity of consciousness depends wholly on a law of nature; and so, on the sovereign will and agency of God; and therefore, that personal identity, and so the derivation of the pollution and guilt of past sins in the same person, depends on an arbitrary divine constitution: and this, even though we should allow the same consciousness not to be the only thing which constitutes oneness of person, but should, besides that, suppose sameness of substance requisite. For if same consciousness be one thing necessary to personal identity, and this depends on God’s sovereign constitution, it will still follow, that personal identity depends on God’s sovereign constitution. And with respect to the identity of created substance itself, in the different moments of its duration, I think, we shall greatly mistake, if we imagine it to be like that absolute independent identity of the first being, whereby “he is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Nay, on the contrary, it may be demonstrated, that even this oneness of created substance, existing at different times, is a merely dependent identity; dependent on the pleasure and sovereign constitution of him who worketh all in all.”

What he does is relativize identity to the will of God. Hence, how God views identity is what makes identity. All cases of identity are relative in this way, and so “oneness” or “sameness” is context dependent, and the justice of applying these predicates to unify particulars and treat them as parts of the same whole is all in the eye of a Giant Beholder.

The distinct, conscious episodes that I ordinarily look upon as my own consciousness are actually causally distinct (i.e., a fairly radical occasionalism runs all through this particular Edwards piece), and what *makes* them one is that God *treats* them as one. And if this is true of the paradigm cases of identity, then what’s so unjust or unseemly about treating all human agents as parts of one object? So asks Edwards.

He ends on this note:

He writes:
“There are various kinds of identity and oneness, found among created things, by which they become one in different manners, respects and degrees, and to various purposes; several of which differences have been observed; and every kind is ordered, regulated and limited, in every respect, by divine constitution. Some things, existing in different times and places, are treated by their Creator as one in one respect, and others in another; some are united for this communication, and others for that; but all according to the sovereign pleasure of the Fountain of all being and operation. It appears, particularly, from what has been said, that all oneness, by virtue whereof pollution and guilt from past wickedness are derived, depends entirely on a divine establishment. ‘Tis this, and this only, that must account for guilt and an evil taint on any individual soul, in consequence of a crime committed twenty or forty years ago, remaining still, and even to the end of the world and forever. ‘Tis this, that must account for the continuance of any such thing, anywhere, as consciousness of acts that are past; and for the continuance of all habits, either good or bad: and on this depends everything that can belong to personal identity. And all communications, derivations, or continuation of qualities, properties, or relations, natural or moral, from what is past, as if the subject were one, depends on no other foundation. And I am persuaded, no solid reason can be given, why God, who constitutes all other created union or oneness, according to his pleasure, and for what purposes, communications, and effects he pleases, may not establish a constitution whereby the natural posterity of Adam, proceeding from him, much as the buds and branches from the stock or root of a tree, should be treated as one with him, for the derivation, either of righteousness and communion in rewards, or of the loss of righteousness and consequent corruption and guilt.”

So, in the end, it’s not really the quasi-four-dimensionalism that’s the interesting, radical stuff (though of course there’s some of that really in Edwards).

It’s his novel view of the metaphysics of identity.
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